So you think I got an evil mind?
Well, I’ll tell you, honey–
I don’t know why.
And I don’t know why…
Most Americans are probably more familiar with Quiet Riot’s cover of “Cum On Feel The Noize” in the 1980s, but it was originally a big hit in the UK for a band called Slade in the early ’70s. You’ll hear a lot of that song in The Quiet Ones, a Hammer revival film set in 1974; it’s just the kind of music you want to use to keep a suicidally depressed girl with a poltergeist from getting any sleep.
Now, why would anybody want to do that?
It’s a psychological experiment. Oxford professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris, the luckless Lane Pryce on Mad Men) explains it during a lecture just before he hires a cameraman to document his work.
“What if you could prove that the supernatural was merely a manifestation of what already exists in the mind, the subconscious?” The professor doesn’t believe in ghosts or demons, but that the negative energy of a disturbed mind can create the type of physical phenomena that looks like a haunting or possession. He thinks that he’s near to finding a cure for it; if he can externalize the phenomena, it can be removed like a tumor. “We cure one patient, we cure all mankind.”
The patient he has in mind is a young woman named Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke). Orphaned at an early age, with no memory of her past, Jane has grown up in a series of foster homes but she’s never stayed anywhere for very long. Sooner or later, “things started to happen”–poltergeist activity that made it impossible for her foster family to keep her. After she was hospitalized for a suicide attempt, Jane came voluntarily into Coupland’s care. He’s currently keeping her in a house in town, under the observation of three student assistants. No, make that two assistants. One quits, angry and appalled at what he calls Coupland’s “unethical” practices before he storms off.
The cameraman, a young man named Brian (Sam Claflin) is shocked as well when Coupland takes him to meet Jane and the other two students he’ll be working with, Krissi and Harry.
Locked in a dreary little room, Jane is watched through a hatch cut in the door, wearing only a nightgown and lying on a mattress on the floor but unable to sleep because of the loud music being played to keep her awake.
Harry and Krissi show Brian a film already made of Jane during a recent seance. Jane says she sees a little girl–or maybe a doll–named Evey. “I don’t like her.” The session ends with a bang, as the cap bursts off the room’s radiator, and steam and hot water spray up.
Brian looks unnerved because the room in the film is the same room they’re currently sitting in; the wall above the radiator is still steam-damaged.
I think that one of the reasons this film was set in 1974 was because of The Exorcist. Everyone in this movie is familiar with that one, and they reference it or joke about it. When Jane first sees Brian peeking in at her, she asks if he expects her head to spin around, then speaks to him in a deepened “possessed” voice and laughs.
She also tells Brian to tell Coupland that she’s “ready” and can she please be allowed to get some sleep?
Brian conveys this and, even though Jane’s behavior rattles him, he’s begun to be interested in her. He takes the job.
The entire movie is made up of an objective view interspersed with Brian’s filming of the experiment in 16mm. He does interviews with Coupland, Krissi, Harry, and even Jane later on, and this introduces them all and gives the viewer an idea of their individual characters. It’s also a way to provide exposition about what’s going on in the experiment, as people explain to Brian and his camera what they’re about to do, and what all the monitoring and recording equipment is for (but they never do explain why they won’t let the poor girl sleep).
Professor Coupland had worked with another patient some years earlier, a disturbed little boy; he shows a decade-old black-and-white film of the child both during his lecture and more later on to Brian.
David Q, was possessed by something he called “Mr. Gregor,” after a character in a bedtime story his parents read to him (Possibly Farmer McGregor from Peter Rabbit?). In the film, David says that Mr. Gregor is “the man who makes things happen”–and, as if to demonstrate, a light falls from the ceiling and things go flying around in the kitchen. When the boy is under Mr. Gregor’s influence, his face distorts in an alarming way.
Coupland says that he was making progress when David’s mother took the boy out of his care. He sees Jane as a second chance not only to cure a tormented young person, but to prove his theories right.
With his research funding abruptly pulled and the police called in by neighbors complaining about the loud music at all hours, Coupland piles his little group into a moving van with his papers and equipment. Jane is blindfolded like a hostage. They all move into an empty Georgian house in the Oxfordshire countryside.
One odd thing: Brian leaves his camera behind and running in the drive after recording their arrival. Before he comes out to retrieve it, the door at the back of the van swings slowly open by itself.
While the rest of the group takes rooms in the house, Brian sets up camp in a garage or coach-house a few hundred yards away with his cameras and equipment.
At least Jane’s got a larger room, what appears to have been a nursery from the painting on one wall which, like a lot of Victorian images for children that are meant to jolly or whimsical, look kind of creepy. She still sleeps on a mattress on the floor, and the group keeps an eye on her through a hatch in the door. Brian brings her a flower from the garden.
Joseph Coupland and his students also give Jane a present, a doll named Evey in which she can place all her negative thoughts and energy and get rid of them. Jane says that the doll doesn’t look like Evey, and she plucks out all the hair on its head.
As soon as the group settles in, they start holding seances. As we’ve already seen in the film Brian watched, Jane wears a headband with electrodes so they can monitor the electromagnetic energy of her brain and look for the off-the-scale spikes that indicate “Evey” activity. They also use a tall, metal tower with rectangular holes cut in it and a lightbulb inside; when it spins around, the strobing of the light has a hypnotic effect.
During their first session in the house, there’s a sign of externalized energy: a force knocks the camera out of Brian’s hand.
Second session: There are some loud knocking sounds in the room and shrieking feedback from the sound recording equipment. Jane speaks of a fire. Coupland passes a lit candle under her arm but, even though it burns her, she doesn’t feel it. It’s the horrified Brian who puts a stop to it, and Coupland threatens to sack him if he interrupts again.
The professor considers these early efforts extremely promising. “If we survive, we win the Nobel Prize,” he tells Brian.
“Is there a chance we won’t?” Brian wonders.
Coupland answers: “Security is a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” This is actually a quote from Helen Keller.
Although, at first glance, Jane looks like a young teenager, Brian and the viewer soon realize that she isn’t a child. Olivia Cooke was 18 when this film was made, and we’ll see evidence later on to indicate that Jane is in her 20s.
Jane herself will acknowledge: “Every time I look in the mirror, I see a little girl. I want to see a woman.”
She is aware that Brian is developing feelings for her, and flirts in weirdly inappropriate ways that disturb him as much as entice him: she flashes him by dropping her nightgown to the floor when he looks in through the hatch, or by sitting up suddenly while he interviews her in the bathtub. At one point, she takes a more direct and aggressive approach. Claiming that “Evey’s inside me,” she shoves him against the wall, kisses him, and unfastens his pants.
Professor Coupland puts a stop to this before it goes any further, in his cool and oh-so-British, understated way: “Take your hands out of his trousers now, please.”
Their third session is the most impressive. Dispensing with the whirling strobing light tower, the group returns to the old-fashioned holding hands around the table seance style. The doll Evey sits before Jane. Jane talks again about the fire, and says that Evey is burning in it. She shrieks “burning, burning, burning” as the doll begins to smoulder; when she picks it up, she burns her hands. A long, muddy-red tentacle of ectoplasm shoots out of her mouth toward the camera, and quickly snaps back in.
Coupland calls this “tele-plasm” (Same thing, really. Ectoplasm, teleplasm, potato, potahto). He’s delighted. This is that externalization of negative energy he’s been hoping for.
During the next seance, Evey manifests in the form of loud, stomping footsteps approaching the room, then thumping sounds in the closet under the stairs. When Coupland investigates, he gets yanked into the closet and his hand is bitten. Probably not the kind of externalization he wanted.
Jane’s feelings toward Evey begin to change. She says that they might become friends.
Meanwhile, emotional undercurrents are developing within the group. It’s not just Brian’s feelings for Jane. Harry is Krissi’s steady boyfriend and the two share a room, but she’s also having a fling with Joseph Coupland. Brian sees the professor kissing his student in the garden one afternoon, and then sees that Jane is also watching them from her window; she’s jealous. Both girls have been vying for the older man’s attention in their own ways–Jane by submitting to these experiments in what Harry calls a “sick desire to please [him]” and Krissi by playing Teacher’s Pet.
Afterwards, Brian reviews his footage, especially the teleplasmic spitting, which tints his film red as if it’s been singed.
Now that they’ve brought Evey out, the next step is to isolate her from Jane so she can be extracted. To do this, they use Kirlian photography to monitor changes in Jane’s bio-electric energy while she’s at rest, and when Evey is manifested.
They actually capture an image of “Evey” on film–a little face in the lightning-like streaks of electromagnetic energy above Jane’s head.
When Joseph shows this to Jane, Jane smiles at it like an expectant mother who’s seeing a sonogram of her baby for the first time. Her response is similarly maternal: “I don’t want to get rid of her.”
Coupland refuses to believe this.
It’s around this time that Krissi realizes that Jane is something of a rival, and the experiment begins to fall apart for personal reasons. In a jealous outburst, Krissi tells Harry and Brian that Joseph is in love with Jane Harper–or, as she puts it, “He wants to cure her so he can have her.” She accuses all three men of being in love with Jane, which seems a bit much; I don’t see any sign that Harry’s ever looked at Jane as anything but an interesting case study. He’s only now getting a clue that something’s been going on between his girlfriend and Joseph.
Krissi holds this conversation in the monitoring room next to Jane’s, and when she touches a piece of equipment, an electric shock throws her against the wall. Through the speaker to Jane’s room, we hear a laugh.
Jane later says that she was asleep. Coupland rejects this too; Jane shouldn’t be able to exhibit poltergeist phenomena while she’s sleeping.
Later that night, the lightbulb in Krissi’s and Harry’s room implodes while they’re having a follow-up argument and the power goes out all over the house. When Brian comes over from his coach-house, Joseph tells him that Jane’s gone missing. All four search for her. There’s much running around up stairs and down hallways in the dark with flashlights waving and people calling out names, all seen through Brian’s camera. Kind of like The Blair Witch Project, except indoors.
Eventually, they find Jane up in the attic, appearing ghostly white in her nightgown in the darkness. The attic is filled with the usual creepy-looking antique objects and what look like toys and furniture from the nursery.
Jane says that Evey is there. “Right here in front of you.” We can hear a soft, purring, cooing noise.
When Jane pulls back the blanket on an old baby’s cot, she reveals a scorchmark on the mattress that looks like a baby curled up, or a fetus. Jane talks to this as if it is a baby, offering to comfort it. When she reaches to touch it, the scorched area bursts into flames, which shoot up Jane’s arms and briefly onto her nightgown. A symbol has been burned onto Jane’s torso, an occult device known as a sigil.
Coupland is furious. He’s certain that one of the others has put the idea of the occult into the mind of his highly suggestible patient. But the three younger people are now beginning to believe that Professor Coupland’s theory is wrong, that Evey is coming to Jane from outside–a real spirit.
Harry and Krissi take a break to get away from the group and head back to their flat in Oxford. After sneaking into Coupland’s study to read Jane’s personal files–which have a lot of information blacked out, since her childhood records have been sealed, and there’s some vagueness about her actual birthdate–Brian also goes to Oxford to visit the Bodleian Library.
He learns about the sigil as an occult device. Among other things, it was the symbol used by a cult called the Lilithu who worshiped an ancient Sumerian demon.
Their leader, Dr. Heinrich Dwyer, was convinced that his toddler daughter Evey, who had already shown signs of clairvoyance, could reincarnate their idol. The little girl was born with a birthmark inside her upper lip that resembled a sigil.
The entire cult perished in a fire in 1954, when they gathered together for a special ceremony, presumably to raise their Sumerian demon.
While Brian is gathering this information, Krissi is taking a relaxing soak in her bathtub. She’s attacked again. We don’t see exactly what it is–the bath water starts to bubble and steam rises out of it. Krissi leaps out of the tub and tries to get out of the bathroom, but the doorknob is too hot to handle. She looks horrified at whatever it is she’s seeing that we don’t. The most we glimpse through the steam is a hand or claw in that same muddy-red color as the teleplasm Jane spit out. The steam, and the creature, dissipate quickly when Harry shoves the door open from the outside.
Everyone’s back at the house, and Krissi is furious. She knows exactly who’s responsible, and why. She says that Jane ought to be committed and constantly sedated. Harry says that when you leave a haunted house, you don’t expect the ghost to come after you.
Joseph mocks them for believing in spirits and demonic possession. He hasn’t budged an inch from his original theory. Not even the information that Brian brings them about Evey Dwyer and Lilithu makes him reconsider. He’s certain that Jane must have heard about this event in her childhood and tucked it away in her mind.
But he’s wrong. So is Brian. Evey Dwyer isn’t a ghost; her relationship to Jane Harper is much closer, as we’ll learn when Jane shows us the birthmark on the inside of her upper lip. (And if she is that little girl in the photo from 1954, then she must be at least 23.)
The group is fragmenting now. Other truths come out and nasty remarks are made about who’s sleeping with whom, or who wants to. Krissi slaps Joseph, and the three men start throwing punches. This is all too much for Jane, and at this point it really doesn’t matter if the power manifested through her comes from her own mind or an outside source. It’s just as bad for the people who bear the brunt of it.
Joseph Coupland still clings to his theory, even though he’s otherwise gone entirely off his rails. At the end, his idea is to kill Jane temporarily, just long enough to make Evey externalize and to monitor that progress with another series of Kirlian photographs, then to revive Jane with an injection of adrenaline to the heart once Evey is gone. Jane willingly consents to this.
Brian objects, but he’s been tied to a chair while the nutty professor makes use of his camera to record this final phase–or last gasp–of the experiment.
I enjoyed most of this. The key performances, especially Olivia Cooke, are very good. I like the professor’s theory, even if it turns out to be wrong in the end. The special effects aren’t overdone for the most part, but nice when they do show up; the teleplasmic spitting is the high point, especially on the first viewing when it’s not expected. Except for a few loud bangs, everything is pretty low-key up to that point.
The split between Brian’s camera and an objective point of view is interesting. Not only does it provide an in-movie reason for the necessary exposition about what’s going in, it creates that hand-held, amateur look of found footage without having the whole movie done that way so that one begins to wonder if the cameraman ever puts his camera down.
The sound is great. The diegetic use of loud UK hit songs from the early ’70s sets the tone of the period, and the score is remarkable. I can’t call it music in any conventional sense; it’s a sort of rhythmic metallic pulse like the sheets of tin theaters use to simulate the sound of thunder, ominous and quite unnerving.
Bad side? Well, some of the spooky scenes, like the running around the house in the dark, are highly derivative, but that’s a minor criticism. Haunted house movies are like that, and one has to expect it if one watches enough of them.
What irks me most is when the Sumerian demon comes into it. I thought the relationship between Jane and whatever Evey really was, was sufficient. The motivations of a little girl who’s passed on but has some business left unfinished in the living world interests me–as do the psychic motivations of a young woman who’s forgotten who she is–but the motivations of demons don’t. At least, I would’ve been happy if there’d been a decent amount of ambiguity about it at the very end.
The film opens with a “Based on actual events” statement, which is only marginally true. The Philip Experiment was conducted in 1972 in Canada. Psychic researchers attempted to prove the same thesis that ghosts and such were products of the human mind. They invented their own ghost named Philip Aylesford, complete with a personal history of his life and death, then tried to generate manifestations of “Philip’s” haunting. Although they held seances–which you can watch on YouTube–nothing like the events of this film ever happened.
Even so, the closing credits feature what look like period photographs of the “real” Professor Coupland, Jane, and the rest of the team. But in the film’s DVD commentary, the director cheerfully admits that this is just a different group of actors. All part of creating a legend.